Literary Translation: 5 Common Techniques the Professionals Employ

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Literary translation is an art. It’s not enough to just know two languages: It takes experience, an impressive vocabulary, and vast cultural knowledge to translate a novel or any other literary work while staying true to the original text. Since a story is necessarily rooted in the author’s cultural context, translation gets even trickier when you’re working with languages from disparate cultures. Translation is about more than crossing language barriers—it’s about crossing cultural, historical, and social barriers and appealing to people whose worldviews can widely differ from one another, doing all of this without losing the intended meaning. 

Translating literature is especially difficult as the translator is responsible for how an author’s work will be viewed in another country or region. On the other hand, it also opens up a new world for readers who would have otherwise missed out on the opportunity to read a celebrated text in their own language. The story won’t be exactly the same because the translator will inevitably need to take liberties to deliver a seamless translation, but it will be close enough to the original for the new audience to enjoy it and appreciate the artistic genius required to produce it.

If you would like to share your work with the world but don’t know where to find a trustworthy translator, look no further than our literary translation services, which can translate your book into more than 90 languages. If you’d like to learn more about literary translation, below are some commonly used techniques employed by professionals. 

Adding new elements 

There are untranslatable words in nearly every language—words that are loaded with meaning but have no equivalent in another language. Flâner in French—to aimlessly wander, enjoying despite not having a destination—or saudades in Portuguese—the longing for something that’s now gone, that leaves a happy emptiness inside—are two common examples of words that need a full sentence to be described in English. This is when linguistic amplification is used in translation. Understanding how to translate these sentiments without losing sight of the style and prose of the original text takes delicate expertise and cultural understanding. This is what makes translation an art, not a science. If you read your translated book in, say, Japanese, you might find that the content seems quite different despite being the same.

Removing non-essential information

Elision can be considered the opposite of amplification: It’s a process that involves removing certain parts of the original text. In language, elision is commonly used to make written words look more like the way they’re spoken. For example, transforming “I don’t know” to “dunno” is a form of elision. Elision can be broader and more contextual in translation but retains its meaning of removing non-essential items to make stylistic improvements. Sometimes, this could simply be due to one language preferring to explicitly state something that another tends to just imply.

Using loanwords 

In translation, borrowing means using a word in either the original language or a third language (like Latin, for example) when the target language doesn’t have the right word or the foreign word is commonly used and understood. This technique is regularly employed in medicine and business but has also become commonplace in the context of translation. For example, English words like “sale” or “bulldozer” are frequently used in non-English-speaking countries and would be easily understood without the need for translation. Of course, for this to work, you need to be sure that your translator is a bona fide professional who truly understands the nuances of the word in both languages because borrowed words often take on new shades of meaning in a foreign language.

Focusing on the message

Adaptation is used when the message being translated is more important than the actual words conveying it. For example, when you watch The Simpsons in any language other than English, most of the jokes will be adapted to the target language rather than directly translated since the cultural context would make it hard for people in other countries to understand, and maintaining the narrative is more important than a literal translation of the joke. This technique is also commonly used in marketing as brands must adapt to different cultures without eroding their original message. 

Another example of adaptation is found in poetry or song lyrics where a particular structure may be required, such as a strict number of syllables or a rhyming pattern. Riddles, puns, and any form of wordplay must also be approached with the utmost care, and they demand a sharp creative mind to translate skillfully—how these should be translated depends on the context. Sentences that draw on cultural knowledge may be adapted to explain the same concept in a culturally appropriate way.

Mitigating translation loss

Compensation is used when parts of the original text are moved to another place in the target text to ensure the same effect and avoid losing important information that isn’t implicit in the target language. Puns or wordplay often require compensation although it can also be used within the same sentence if certain words must be amplified or adapted. A simple example is the use of definite articles in Romance languages—el viejo and la vieja in Spanish imply gender, whereas “old” is genderless in English. This must be compensated when translating to English by referencing the gender separately, usually somewhere else in the text, unless it’s irrelevant and can be omitted. The job of a skilled translator is to slip such information in without creating clunky, unnatural prose.

These highly specialized techniques are only some of the commonly used ones in literary translation, so it’s essential to hire a professional when rendering your book into another language to ensure none of the meaning is lost in translation. If you’re an author searching for a translator, check out our literary translation services and let us help you grow your international audience and sales. 

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